Sowing Possibility Episode 9: Emily Stifler Wolfe & Jason Thompson on "Common Ground" (Part 1)
Photography: Jason Thompson/MTFP
[5:40] Jason’s rural Western WA roots among the fruit trees
[7:00] Emily’s rural Vermont upbringing
[10:20]: How the regenerative agriculture story idea emerged and interviewing Kris Tompkins
[11:55]: Food chain shortages and the food processor story Emily and Jason covered
[12:50]: Ag of the middle and local and regional systems
[14:40]: Montana’s Golden Triangle Region
[15:30]: Difference between organic and regenerative and soil health principles
[17:10]: Cover cropping
[18:45] Temperature differences between fields
[20:00]: Myllymaki’s over copping experiment in Judith Basin County
[20:50]: Cows eating turnip cover crop and impacts of intensive grazing
[22:00]: What the distinctions are between organic and regenerative ag
[23:40]: The Indigenous roots of regenerative agriculture and importance of diverse perspectives and backgrounds working on food security
[25:30]: "Healing Grounds," Liz Carlisle
[27:40]: Capturing the complexities of different agricultural traditions in a photograph
[28:25]: Beig thankful to Indigenous agricultural expertise and best practices
[29:30]: Jason’s artistry making people feel comfortable in front of a camera
[31:20]: Capturing photo of John Wicks inside the tractor cab and photos of where people forget about the camera
[32:30]: People’s different responses to the three “Common Ground” stories
[34:15]: Positive responses farmers profiled have received from their community
Guests: Emily Stifler Wolfe & Jason Thompson
Host, creator, producer and co-editor: Megan Torgerson
Editor and mixing: Rob Upchurch
Episode music: Andrew Drinnan
[36:15]: Balancing elements of solutions journalism, complex profile writing and organic agriculture research while lifting up the community of Big Sandy
[38:00]: Switching in and out of organic
[39:30]: Micro-ecosystems – farming isn’t one size-fits-all
[40:55]: Balancing neighbor relationships between conventional and organic farmers
[43:00] Intensive grazing
[45:40]: How different farmers get into organic farming
[48:30]: Keeping the next generation of farmers interested in regenerative agriculture
[49:30]: Myllymaki kids’ interest in farming and outdoors
[51:30]: Wicks’ and Fauque’s story of switching to organic farming
[54:45]: Experimenting with regenerative ag on the back 40
[56:00]: Changing mindset
"Common Ground Series," Montana Free Press (Emily Stifler & Jason Thompson)
"Homegrown" Montana Free Press (Emily Stifler & Jason Thompson)
“Kris Tompkins has protected 13 million acres, and she’s not done yet,” Mountain Outlaw (Emily Stifler Wolfe)
“Higher Ground: Patagonia founder YVON CHOUINARD is in business to serve the earth, not Wall Street ,” Esquire (Emily Stifler Wolfe)
“What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes,” Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Greater Montana Foundation
*Episode note: Prior to publishing this story we received approval from Courtney Cowgill to share the anecdote from Emily about drift from a neighboring farm.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): Take a drive down a country road in the Golden Triangle, and you’ll notice things are shifting in Montana’s high-yielding wheat producing region. What looks like a hand stitched quilt of matte beige fields from 30,000 feet in the air, on the ground dips and swells into a dynamic landscape of barley, lentils, chickpeas and other crops planted using a diverse array of farming techniques. I had just traversed the Golden Triangle during harvest season to help out at my family’s farm in far Northeast Montana, when Montana Free Press published Common Ground, a three-part series set in the Triangle written by Emily Stifler Wolfe. Inspired by what I read, I decided to reach out. Common Ground highlights the growing regenerative agriculture movement that is fostering resilient rural economies and communities, and that’s sowing hope in the future for farmers across the West. Supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, the series masterfully weaves story with soil science, history, policy research and regional knowledge that comes alive through the transportive photography of Jason Thompson.
Emily Stifler Wolfe: I just learned that people are so complex and people really do have this connection to the Earth and it shows up differently. And I think it’s really important that when you talk about these different techniques it’s not like we’re putting it on someone and they have to do it and like this is why. People need to come to it on their own terms and it also needs to be something that pencils.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today a conversation with Emily Stifler Wolfe and Jason Thompson, journalists and co-creators of the award-winning Common Ground series.
Common Ground begins with the story of John Wicks, a farmer near Chester who left Montana State University at age 21 to take over his family’s farm when his father passed away. John switched to organic farming after contracting chemical pneumonia from inhaling herbicides and pesticides and now farms with his wife Gwenyth Givens, a former pastry chef who grew up on a seed-cleaning operation in Big Sandy. “Part I: Soil is our livelihood and we better protect it, or we’re screwed,” also shares the journey of Happy Steer Ranch owners Korey and Wendy Fauque who are seeing the regenerative techniques of intensive grazing and cover cropping dramatically improve their soil health. In part two “Building on soil in Big Sandy” Emily and Jason go to Bob Quinn’s farm and organic research center to document how Quinn’s businesses built around organic and regenerative practices, are creating local jobs and responding to the climate crisis. A stop at the office of Big Sandy farmer, mayor, loan officer and bank vice president, Shaud Schwarzbach, underscores the cost of organic conversion and the feasibility challenges and risks associated.
In part three “Rebuilding soil by building relationships” Emily and Jason’s reporting on the inter-generational Myllymaki family farm in Judith Basin shares how the regenerative practices of crop rotation and livestock integration are increasing biodiversity, mitigating erosion, capturing carbon and keeping the next generation of farmers interested in the family business. The series’ final article also shines light on the National Resource Conservation Service’s new stakeholder-centered framework and Blackfeet-led efforts to connect conservation with community health and well-being, and steward grassland ecosystems through grazing practices that mimic bison behavior.
I recommend you check out the Common Ground Series at montanafreepress.org either before or after you listen to this episode. Emily, Jason and I had so much to talk about that this conversation will come to you in two parts. Next month’s episode, which is the final episode for Reframing Rural’s Season Two: Sowing Possibility, will pick up where we left off. But today, you’ll get to know what compelled Jason and Emily to tell the story of regenerative agriculture in North Central Montana. You’ll learn about their rural roots in Vermont and Washington and what led to their interest in healthy local food. We’ll also start to explore the Indigenous origins of regenerative agriculture, the complexities of organic and conventional farm neighbor relationships, what’s compelling people to convert to regenerative and organic ag, and how readers are responding to the personal stories of John Wicks and Gwenyth Givens, the Fauques, Myllymakis and others profiled in this in-depth series.
Torgerson: I recently took a writing class where the word the instructor used for homeplace, or geographic background was primal place. And as you know, the rooting question that I've asked guests this season really has to do with the lasting influence of our informative primal places, and what that lasting influence has on us. So when you think about your respective primal places of Washington and Vermont, and the storied layers of geology, community and family, and so on, that make up that place, what comes up for you?
Thompson: Yeah, I grew up in Western Washington. Thinking back on what that meant for me, I spent a lot of time as a young child in a very rural setting. There were goats and shepherds kind of in our neighborhood, and herds of goats would be walking by our house. I remember going salmon fishing with my dad as a young kid. And I remember my mom was trying to eat very healthy, and my dad had an interest in growing food. And I remember one fond memory growing up was my fruit chair, and I had this little rocking chair, and instead of having like a, you know, a dessert after dinner, I would have a piece of fruit. And that was just my mom, you know, I think, really cultivating a healthy eating lifestyle for our whole family from a very young age. Yeah so that's, that's some of the memories of of growing up in Washington State for me.
Torgerson: I love how many fruit trees there are in Washington and growing up in Montana, I'm always just so amazed by the diversity of trees and plants. And you were really fortunate to get to have your own dedicated fruit tree as a child. And Emily, what about for you what comes up when you think about your primal place of Vermont?
Wolfe: Yeah, the word primal is really interesting. That made me think about it really differently. Vermont is so green and wet. And I feel like my connection to that place is very rooted through that. I spent a lot of time as a child climbing trees. And my parents bought the sugar bush, of an old farm on a dirt road outside of Burlington, which is like 20 minutes from Burlington, which is really fairly comparable to Bozeman where I live now. And the sugar bush is like, where the farmer tapped maple trees for maple syrup, and so there are all these 100 plus year old, big maple trees that I would climb with these huge branches. And I think about that a lot.
That felt I don't want to say grounding, but it's not because I was up in the air. I think more grounding was like being in the forest playing on the ledges near the house and you know, playing in the mud.
Torgerson: Wow, and you both have such an interesting background in outdoor adventure and skiing and climbing. And I'm wondering like, how do your interest in gardening and local food and the outdoors at large kind of intersect? And what what is that journey kind of from your childhood or early adolescence?
Wolfe: My dad was like an obsessed gardener. He was a pediatrician and he would spend a lot of his free time - there's this famous story of them when they like, first built their house. And he, for some reason, they were going somewhere or they were too busy. And he like turned on his truck lights and put his first ever garden in at night because he just had to get it in. And now he's got all these big gardens. And I feel like we spent more time doing that than doing like outdoor adventure as kids. I mean, we definitely went on hikes and stuff and skiing in the backyard. But that came later. It was like a teenage expression of I want more of this outdoor thing.
Torgerson: And Jason, what about for you? How did your early love of outdoor adventure kind of come in to be?
Thompson: I grew up with some childhood friends and I come from a big, large family. There's five of us kids and so my parents didn't really have a whole lot of time to take us or expose us to the outdoors all that much. I mean, they they tried as much as they could. But I had some friends whose dads would take us on backpacking trips and stuff. And yeah, that was just a really good entry point to experience in nature as a young child and I think it taught me a lot of really important lessons of just connecting to nature. It taught me to be humble, just realizing how small I am in the big sense of large landscape and, and then just respect for the land and that mountainous landscape that I'm drawn to.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. In one of my earlier episodes this season, I was speaking to the journalist Jake Bollinger, who said that how he got into like learning more about conservation and water issues was really through skiing and through like witnessing the snowpack decline over the years. And so I'm kind of wondering, was there a similar experience that led you both to the an interest in regenerative agriculture? Or how did the idea to do a series on regenerative ag emerge?
Wolfe: I interviewed Kris Tompkins. She worked at Patagonia for a long time, started out like packing boxes as a 15 year old barefoot surfer girl and became the CEO. And then, in her later life, married to Doug Tompkins moved to South America and has conserved these large landscapes. And in that story that I wrote, like four years ago for Mountain Outlaw, which is a publication I helped found here, it's our of Big Sky, and I'm not involved with them, but I was still freelancing for them when I wrote the story. I asked her like, "Hey, why are you guys also buying up these farms and ranches? What's that about?" And then she was like, oh, just off handedly said to me, "you know, that's, that's our only hope for saving the planet. But that's too big of a conversation to have here now." And that stuck with me. And I was like, What is that about?
And then, a year or two later, I interviewed Yvon Chouinard, who is the founder of Patagonia. And that was all he wanted to talk about. And I wrote a story for Esquire. And that was very sort of big picture there a new mission, we're in business to save our home planet. And then there was all this stuff that had got left on the cutting room floor from that story all about food. And I turned around and pitch that back to Mountain Outlaw, focused on essentially how he thinks that food is our chance to save our home planet. And that got me interested in it. And I was already, you know, have my garden and really interested in feeding my kids really healthy food. And I just know how much better I feel when I eat great food in the summer. And the early pandemic happened in the food chain shortages, it just became clear that there were people responding locally to that. And I wanted at that point to write about regenerative ag. But as soon as I started researching what the story was, during that time, I veered straight towards the food processor story that we wrote a series on then, because that was the story of the time. And my interest remained. And I knew that Jason's interest was growing. We were both reading about it. And when we got together after that, and said, we want to do some sort of an agriculture food project, what do we want to do? We want to keep it like, not big ag, but not community ag, like, let's see what the bigger forces are at play in Montana, who's responding to these market changes and innovations and in a somewhat bigger way? And I think that was the question we were asking ourselves, and it led us to this.
Torgerson: Yeah, it is really interesting how you found stories that aren't big ag that aren't community ag, but are these personal stories of what is happening within regenerative and organic agriculture today? And I'm wondering, too, like, how did you drill down on the Golden Triangle region? And instead of doing perhaps stories across the state, how did you identify that region as the place to tell this story?
Wolfe: There is a name for that it's ag of the middle. And then my food processor stories, there was a section on that where basically, the theory is that after World War Two, it just kept going in this direction of "get big or get out," you know, which eventually became the famous quote from then Secretary of Ag, Earl Butz. And the little guys that maybe weren't making their living entirely on it, or could somehow stay local, managed to keep or had other funding, like, could stay in. And now that food has become an hip thing. In some places, there's that. But then otherwise, the Ag of the middle that's what really made our food system resilient, because there were more nodes that if one node broke down, there were backups, and there was local access that broke down.
And people are recognizing that those local and regional systems are what we need to keep. So we were drawn to that. And I had learned about that through the food processor series. And I wanted to after the 2020 election, go meet people that I wouldn't meet rock climbing in Gallatin canyon - or Chokecherry Canyon, as I now know it was called by the people who lived here before the white settlers - and meet people that I wouldn't meet skiing at Bridger Bowl and I wanted to have common ground. I wanted to have something I could talk to them about. And so I thought this was a really amazing opportunity for that. And I will say we thought we were going to like Eastern Montana and the plains and we drove out to the triangle and we were like, there's mountains everywhere. Like we didn't go as far east as we thought we were, but my husband hunts up there. And I had climbed on the front. And it was also just, you know, as you report and meet people and are trying to figure out who's doing what and what's a reasonable place to drive, and all the signs just sort of pointed towards the Triangle. It's such an important growing region in terms of the history of wheat in Montana, too.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah, it's definitely prolific. Like I remember driving across the state of Montana with my dad, who would be looking out of his driver's side window instead of straight ahead, just like looking at all the beautiful crops. It's definitely a region that I think a lot of farmers venerate in the state. And yeah, so we're right before our call, we were kind of talking about how regenerative is a term that's pretty nebulous and not codified, like organic. And could you tell me a little bit about that dynamic too? What does regenerative mean to farmers in maybe the Golden Triangle compared to people interested in local food in Bozeman or something?
Wolfe: Unlike organic, it is not, there's not a USDA certification for it. There are so many different definitions of it. The definition that I was working off of in my third story of regenerative is the NRCS, or Natural Resources Conservation Service definition, they have five soil health principles: minimize disturbance, maximize diversity, maximize living roots in the soil, maximize cover, and integrate livestock. So unlike organic, they still use pesticides and fertilizer, or synthetic pesticides and fertilizer. Organic does have some ability to use organic versions of that, which that's a whole other conversation, but the regenerative in this definition there's no telling and of course, there's all sorts of different hairs you can split in terms of like what is actually no till.
Torgerson: Or like no till or low till like, I've come across that.
Wolfe: Now here I'm gonna pull up some other definitions.
Torgerson: And just a quick follow up question while you're pulling that up. So cover crops include like peas or things that sow nitrogen back into the soil, but is that term also used for like just keeping the ground constantly covered with some sort of vegetation throughout the year?
Wolfe: So cover crops are used to yes fix nitrogen and also create more residue. And also a lot of times people will graze their cover crops like the Myllymakis who are in story three. And cover crops can be part of a continuous cropping cycle, which I believe there's more of in your region Northeastern Montana but the Myllymakis did continuous cropping, so that avoids the chem fallow and cover crops aren't a perfect answer either. I mean, we're in a high desert and ideally it would be perennial plants. And however it is progress, right, we had summer fallow which was tilled, and a lot of the dirt blew away. And then we had chem fallow which was big progress, because you left the stubble and just sprayed it with different pesticides, so roundup or other things to keep the weeds down, but then it ends up killing a lot of the living microorganisms in the soil and puts this pesticides into the earth, but it keeps a lot of the snow covered the snow gets stuck in the stubble. And it also, having that residue of the crop residue in the stubble keeps the moisture in the soil and because you're not planting at all times, the plants aren't using the water in the upper level of soil. So it's holding on to that and then the cover crops what we learned in story three and some of the experiments that they did on the Myllymakis, the experiments that convinced them to switch over were that not only that but the temperature in the soil is much lower than in a chem fallow field. So that also prevents some of the water from just sublimating into the air. I think it depends on how you do it because the cover crops can certainly take up if you don't either graze them down or end them some way some people use Roundup or different different means to end you know cut them down then they can end up taking up a lot of that moisture that they're trying to save.
Torgerson: Yeah I remember coming across that number in your article of like how hot a chem fallow field can be - it was it like over 100 degrees or something?
Wolfe: It was like 110 as compared to 85 is what they had a control field right next to their cover cropping field. This was the Myllymakis, Kurt and PJ and they had almost 10,000 acres that they were farming with Kurt's dad, Bruce, traditionally, conventionally and their local NRCS Soil Conservationist, Pam Linker, convinced them to do a five acre experiment over the course of five years. It was something she wanted to run with five different producers in Judith Basin County. And they didn't want to do it at all. They said something like, well, that's gonna be a pain in the ass, but we'll do it for Pam. And they did it. And then that first year, they saw that. They saw turnips were going going down and they would hit the roots would hit the old plow pan, which is where the plow for years had tilled, and stopped the bottom of where the tillers had hit. And it was like hard pan down below, and the roots would grow sideways, and then find a crack and go down. And I think that was a really obvious thing, too. They could see how different the soil was. And then that next year, I think it was much more productive because some of the turnips and radishes had fixed a lot of nitrogen.
Torgerson: Yeah, I love that image from that story of a cow munching on a turnip like I've never seen that before.
Wolfe: We were all standing around talking and that cow walked over to us, and they're these little cows. Apparently when they eat cover crops, they get really shiny. She was like, so shiny and pretty. And she was just like looking at us chewing on this turnip and just like smiling at us practically it was hilarious. They were really friendly. I guess when they move them with such regularity the cows get really friendly, because they know Hey, the people are coming. They're gonna give us food.
Torgerson: Wow. Yeah. Jason, did you capture that cow on your camera?
Thompson: I did. I don't think that image was used. But yeah, she definitely had some personality.
Torgerson: Oh, that's great.
Wolfe: I'm looking up other definitions of regenerative. And I do think we need I haven't actually gotten to the one I want to read. But I think that we need to talk about that at some point.
Torgerson: Totally. And I guess a kind of clarifying question too like, it seems like well, different families that you profiled in the series are either organic or regenerative or both. And but sometimes are you finding that like organic and regenerative are used interchangeably? Like accidentally?
Wolfe: Well, I guess I would say that in cities, foodies will say, oh, organic regenerative. And there's a Regenerative Organic Alliance. And there's a certification actually, John Wicks that organic farmer from story one has just earned. So yes, they are used in combination. But the regenerative group would say he's still tilling, even though it's conservation, tilling it's low till they would say absolutely not, that's not regenerative. You're breaking up those connections of the fungus, the hypae I think they're called in the soil like, there's too much damage being done for that to be regenerative. I think the other part of the conversation here is largely regenerative. And that definition is just about the practices on the soil. And it's not about who's doing them. And so I think if you take a step back and look at regenerative in the national conversation, there's this, you know, part of it is that what we focus on and a large part of it is also bringing in historically underrepresented populations, people who had all this really powerful traditional farming knowledge.
If you look at the world's biodiversity, some massive proportion of it is maintained by indigenous peoples on very small percentage of land. And so that knowledge that traditional knowledge that is quickly being lost, in big ag and in scientific agriculture, that these other groups would say, and I would agree, and I didn't focus on in the story at all, although a little bit in story three, that needs to be brought back if we are to succeed in this. We need all of the smart minds, we can get an all of the knowledge we can get. And there is so much more to agriculture than what it's been in the last 100 years. These people that we met for the large part were third generation, men who had inherited their family farm and smart people, big thinkers, progressive in terms of their farming practices all across the board in terms of their politics. And that's great, and they're doing amazing things up against really big challenges. But we need much more diversity of thought and background than just that on this problem, this problem of feeding human beings and feeding our growing population in a healthy way that is good for the soil and the planet that we live in.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. In some of the research that I have done in in reading your article too, so the word regenerative has been popping up I think since the 70s or 80s. But really like I started reading Liz Carlisle's new book, and I think she also profiled Latrice Tatsi, and really highlighting that this story didn't start, like you said in response to "get big or get out" policies, or the hyper-accelerated industrialization of ag that came after World War Two, or even the NRCS response to the Dust Bowl era. Like this story of regenerative ag comes from indigenous origins. So yeah, I see that you've highlighted that a bit in the the third series, is there anything else that you want to add to that kind of history that regenerative agriculture emerges out of?
Wolfe: Liz's new book "Healing Grounds" is what it's called. But I think I always understood that this was important. I knew that it was the right thing to do. We all know that if we have more diverse perspectives on hard problems, we're going to get better ideas. But I didn't really understand until I read her book, why it's so imperative to the future of growing food, to have all these different backgrounds and traditions on the job. It's not only the right thing to do, it's the only thing to do.
Torgerson: I love this conversation of agriculture because it also it touches on displacement and globalization and so many other topics just really start with with farming. And that's something that I feel like I learned in in retrospect and thinking back on like my upbringing and becoming curious about the - I think the term in academia is like critical regionalism how something that happens in a small place, like the global and regional implications of kind of what's happening on a small scale. And I'm wondering how some of these dynamics and kind of the, the organic, regenerative split and the Indigenous practices and food sovereignty, I'm throwing out a lot of ideas here, but my question really is like, how does that play out with a camera? Like, how do you photograph the diversity of practices that that are being implemented? And even just just like a conventional and an organic or regenerative practice? Like how does that come across through a photograph?
Thompson: Wow, that's a good question. I think it's really tough to show all of that in, in a photograph, first of all, because I mean, like, you have to have buy-in from the people that I'm taking photographs of, and that takes time to build that trust. And sometimes I can't even get access to those people, or some, some groups of people to or cultures to take images of. Maybe it's not a single image, that can help share these stories, but maybe it's a body of work over time.
The way I look at is like, we can thank everyone before us, you know, starting with indigenous communities everywhere around the globe. I think of them as scientists, you know, for 1000s of years, or however long. They've been running tests on agriculture best practices. And I think we've ignored in America the last 100 years or so, we've kind of ignored that body of work that best practices and move just kind of, like now we know it's better. And so, I think we're starting to realize that we need to listen to this body of knowledge and implement the things that are proven to work over the course of thousands of years and many, many cultures and knowledge. So yeah, I think too I mean, that would be an amazing image to like, make a singular image that could kind of encompass all of all of that, right. Yeah, I guess maybe I think of it more as like a body of work and maybe one artist's or photographer's lifetime work, or maybe it's several people like collectively creating that visual story.
Wolfe: Jason is incredible at, like - I will have talked to people on the phone and gotten to know them and made sure they're game to work with us. But people are still, a lot of the people that we met have never been photographed. I mean, Bob Quinn has made him self available for that, but a lot of the others had not. And Jason is so empathetic and kind and like gentle in his way of being that he is just an absolute artist at building trust and rapport. And if you watch him work, he doesn't just have the camera out immediately in the beginning. And he's really careful about how he does it. And he kind of works the room, if you will. And by the end, it seems like he's gotten people to where they're really comfortable just being themselves. And some of the people that we worked with on this story like Korey Fauque was so animated, and so excited to show off what he had learned. And then, you know, John Wicks was just so it was like, when we first started this people were still just sort of coming out of the woodwork with COVID. And it seemed like John had learned so much in the last few years, and he wanted to share it. And we were there to ask him questions about all of these exciting things that he was learning. And he hadn't really talked to that many people. I think we'd all been so sequestered. And he just wanted to tell us about it. And like, we rode around in the truck with a tractor with him for several hours. And he just talked nonstop. It was amazing, like, huge philosophical questions that he was still pondering and, and life questions.
Torgerson: Wow. How did you get Jason that photo of him driving the tractor? I think he has like an air cedar behind him. Like, because the tractor cabs aren't that big. So that must have been a pretty intimate photo session.
Thompson: Yeah, that was fun. Emily was sitting just immediately to his left. And I was kind of sitting.
Wolfe: You were on the floor, or cooler?
Thompson: Oh, that's right.
Wolfe: Yeah, it was super hot. We were sweating. And he was just like getting warmed up. Yeah. Oh.
Thompson: Yeah, it was it was great. Yeah, I really like trying to make those images that are maybe raw, just kind of capturing those in-between moments where people kind of forget that there is a camera out there. And I think yeah, like I really love that image of John, because it does show a lot of his personality. I think in some ways it shows what what he's doing in that moment.
Torgerson: Yeah, I also love the photo where he's folding in the auger and his Freightliner semi is in the back. And there's like really dynamic clouds in the back. And it looks like the sun is setting like that scene feels really familiar to me, like the workday is done and dad's about to come home. And maybe we're picking them up from the field or something. And I think the photos feel very authentic. And I'm excited that people who haven't seen that kind of landscape, and that kind of work can be transported there through your images. It's really beautiful, it does justice. You do justice to that type of farming. It's beautiful.
Wolfe: I mean, we were on such a journey, right? Like that was June, planting season, it was so green, there's so much hope there's so much excitement. And it was like, Jason went back in the evening and got those evening shots with the drone. And it's just like magic. And people really responded to that story. That one was the one that like, got picked up by Hacker News and got way more traffic than any of the others. And then if you follow the journey of like, when we went back, we met with Bob Quinn of story two, twice, but the story was based in August, when it was wildfire smoke. You couldn't even really see the Bear Paw Mountains from his house. His harvest was really, really, really low. It was just dry. Like you'd pick up the soil. And it just felt like dirt. You know, sand like, it just felt so dry. And yeah, I was going why didn't people respond to this story in the same way. And then I'm like, we'll think about it - like, look at those photos and like the beetles, the potato beetles and like how hard it was.
Wolfe: And then the third story is the government story. And it's totally different. That was much more contentious. And I got different responses to that one. And if I step back from my own response to people feelings, you know, how they felt about it. I'm like, That's how people feel about the government and the government's role in their farms in their lives and in their businesses and in agriculture, and like it can be helpful, and it can be like all this regulation and don't tell me what to do. And it's really interesting, like they weren't necessarily responding to me. They're responding to the story that I found.
Torgerson: Have you heard from farmers like the Wicks or Myllymakis about the responses that they've gotten in their communities from the stories or kind of responses they've heard?
Wolfe: John [Wicks] and PJ Myllymaki, she posted - she's really active on social media and she posted that on her Facebook. And both of them had like, I went last time we went looked like really phenomenal community rallying around sharing the story, the comment threads on John's like, people were just going, "You are so brave, what you've done. And the big changes that you've made in the face of such challenge," like it really gives you goosebumps, to read them. And PJ is so proud of what they're doing. And she wants to bring up others around them who are interested. And it's really hard. I mean, that's something you hear from everybody is when the neighbors are, hey, we don't care what the neighbors think what we're doing is really, it's great for our family, it's really profitable for our farm, it's a much more fun way to farm. But it's harder when they don't have people to talk with about all these big changes that they're making. And so I think she wants to share that.
And same with Korey and Wendy, they were going like, they are really active on Facebook, and they wanted to share it. And it was cool to see people cheering for them and and saying, you know, you what you guys are doing is really exciting. It's really cool to see what it actually looks like on the inside. John, at one point texted me from his high school reunion. And he was like, "everybody's talking about the story. A couple of them, like class of 72 just came up to me to tell me all about it. People are saying I now finally understand what it is that you do." And I think that's so cool. Like have local communities. I had the museum director in Big Sandy emailed me after and say like, "you've given our communities such a lift." And that story was really complicated. That second story was like, the hardest piece I've ever written by far because I tried to combine my love for profile writing of this fascinating character, Bob Quinn, who's been really sort of heroized. And he's done amazing things. But he's also a complex human like all the rest of us. And I didn't want to just skim over the surface with this format of solutions, journalism, that is like absolutely not hero worship. We look at a problem responses to a problem, challenges, insights, limitations, and it's this really strict format. And that was trying to combine those two, and then also bringing in all of the themes of Bob Quinn. So like the creation of the organic industry, the creation, all of his businesses, the impact on this small town, sort of just the soul of this small town, what is this place? And what has it been and where is it going and who's here now, and then also his research, and there was just so much to weave in, but I did really feel like I wanted to do justice and lift up those small towns in the museum directors words like if "I'm coming in and saying you're a dying town," like who am I to say that first of all. We went walking after we met with Bob for the second time, we went and knocked on every door that we could in that hot August, middle of the day in Big Sandy, and talked to all sorts of people. And it's so cool to see how much people are committed to their community and love living there. And the things that they are growing and building there and what's important to them. It was it was really neat. And so I did want that to be a little bit of a love letter to that town.
Torgerson: Yeah, I think that came across. And I think you also captured the complexities of like the loan officer Schod Schwartzbach saying, like he's not completely sold on organics yet. And there's a lot that you had to balance.
Wolfe: So Bob Quinn drove us to town. He dropped me off at the bank. And he was like, you go in and talk to Schod. And it was such a gift. I mean, he was the mayor, the loan officer and he moonlights as a farmer on his wife's family farm. He was so honest about Yeah, he wasn't sold on organic, he could see that it could work in some certain situations. But in most situations, it makes more sense to use pesticides when you need them, and not till and to try to reduce the amount. And that's what a lot of people are saying is like, "Hey, that sounds great. But what happens when you've been doing this for 10 years, and now you've got this huge thistle or bine weed problem?" Like, are you just going to till it up and ruin your soil? Or are you going to spray like in a limited way it's this like, basically this holy grail that no one has been able to find of no till no spray for the long term on a large scale.
Bob Quinn describes it as this like a triangle with two ladders and you're both going for the no till, no spray the regenerative, organic and there's two different ways to get there. And as long as you're moving upwards towards it great, and they certainly shouldn't be like beating each other up. You know, hey, we're both working on this. I respect what you're doing, respect what I'm doing which is what I really saw between John Wicks and Korey Fauque. And he said "Yeah, we know it. We talked to each other on occasion, like, we know what we're doing. There's crossover, we know what each other's doing. It's different. But it's really cool to compare notes." And then there's the issue of like, as Bruce Maxwell said, about Bob Quinn's research, like, it's great that Bob's doing all that local research, it's great that he wants to build that institute to research there. But guess what that needs to happen on every single place, because his research like you can extrapolate some maybe down the lane, but it's going to be so different in the other side of the county, when some of these places, there's multiple different micro ecosystems on one property. So it's doing the research on your own place, and having somehow the time and bandwidth to do that in an already really stressful low margin situation with the weather changing and the climate changing. And it's a lot that these business owners are tackling.
Torgerson: Absolutely. And I know on our own farm, like some of the land that we have just east of Medicine Lake is super arid, and then some of the land that my dad farms in North Dakota will always get rain. How have other farmers been receptive to the switch of regenerative and organic, like what I've heard some farmers say to is like, "Oh, wow, there's a lot of weeds in that organic farmers land and like then that those weeds blow over into like a conventional farmers land." And so I'm wondering if you heard any tensions? Or perhaps some neighbor, neighboring farmers who've converted over because they've been curious about some of the practices that their neighbors have been implementing?
Wolfe: There's some of both, I mean, yes, the weeds go over from organic to conventional. And also, yes, on the way up, the very first night on the very first reporting trip we took, we spent the first night at my former professors house, Courtney Cowgill, the amazing Courtney Cowgill's and she and her husband, Jacob had an organic farm. And they had drift from a neighboring farm that ended up killing some of their, their produce. And I think it was so hard on them that it was one of the reasons they ended up stopping. And you have to ask her, if it's okay to talk about that. Because it's such a complicated situation among neighbors to have that going across the fence. I mean, we all have neighbors, it's complex for anyone. And it's a fine balance. And it's really important to get along with your neighbors to some degree, I feel. So I mean, I think it's really hard. That's what Schod was talking about, like, cycling portions of your land in and out of organic can be more realistic for some people, and then you can make more money off of the organic land, you can know that you're putting less pesticide in the long term into the earth. But then when you get a huge buildup of weeds, you can handle it. I don't know, I mean, are these - there's so many different lenses to look through that. That sounds on the ground more realistic. There's the like, every bit of pesticide that you spray is how long will that stay in the ecosystem for there's a neighbor conversation, there's the cost of spraying. There's so many different questions to ask.
Torgerson: Yeah, and I think that one farm that you mentioned, that cycles in and out of organic and conventional is like 20,000 acres or something like that's not potentially feasible for some farmers to be able to do. And so I was also thinking like, a lot of farmers don't own contiguous sections of land. And so for Regenerative farmers who practice intensive grazing, are they partnering with their neighbors to like graze their cattle on stubble fields? Or how does that work if you don't have two sections of land next to each other to move your cattle,
Wolfe: We saw a lot of different arrangements. Korey and Wendy when they were moving, they had a lot of contiguous land, and they were moving their cows on very small sections. Like some very small like every single day. It was also spring, they also get like eight inches of rain or something insanely small. But as Korey said, we had tons of wind, so at least there's that. And then when we went, let's see, John was partnering with a neighbor who was grazing on some of his cover crops and I also think some of his stubble, and they had the challenge of water. Water is the biggest challenge with all that Korey and Wendy had this really creative water system that they moved, they like, had a trough that was movable and then this hose that they kept moving and re hooking. Korey was like lying in the mud showing us how to attach the valves. He's so excited about it. I think that's a lot of what it takes, is this like momentum to do what's so hard and once you see it working, you're going "it's working!" And and then the Myllymakis had these huge - they move their cows, but it was like every two weeks on like 100 acres, 70 acres. And they were like, their stuff was not all contiguous, but they were able to like they had a system where they moved them out, and then they move them back towards their place. And then by the time spring rolled around, they were like where they needed to be. And then they were moving them along the water, this creek until they could go down and graze at the water, and then come back up to eat. And they had said, the cows were acting really different than they used to, they were thinking they were going to hang out around the water and make a mucky mess. But they were so excited to go back and eat that they were doing totally different cow things than than they used to do, because of the way they were grazing them.
Torgerson: Wow, that's interesting. The cows are doing different cow things. And the farmers are doing different farm things. So I'm kind of curious, each family that you profiled came into regenerative ag in a different way. One of the ways to get into regenerative ag is honestly like not to grow up in conventional ag, so you don't have to push back against the grain of your family's farm traditions. So I'm wondering kind of like what themes that you're seeing are driving people to get into regenerative? Is it like largely financial concerns or concerns for the environment or just an interest in community longevity and job creation?
Wolfe: All of those things, I think, wanting to hang on to the farm, wanting to have more fun farming, seeing that they could make more money because with organic, they can sell it at a premium, especially if they market it themselves with regenerative there isn't that for the most part yet. Although there are some emerging markets for regenerative grown things. There's a company based out of Big Sky that called Region Market that sells Montana, like I think you can get a box every month or something regeneratively grow in Montana stuff. A lot of people especially during the pandemic started doing direct market around the state. We certainly talked to some of the people, we talk to drive all over the state to deliver half cows to customers, and they'll ship them.
So there's all this opportunity to make more money, especially when you can tell the story of how you farmed. I think money is the big thing. And that's what we focus on what we focused on. I didn't want to go, "Hey, farmers, I'm here to talk about how you're capturing carbon or carbon credits," or any of this stuff I wanted to talk about, like where the rubber meets the road. And you're not going to do this if you can't afford to do it. And these are big amounts of money that it takes to run one of these operations. It's a lot is on the line. There was a person that we drove to spend an afternoon driving around with on this spectacular ranch and he was going in and out of organic on the edge of the brakes. And he didn't end up in any of the stories. And he ended up selling his ranch after we met with him. But it was really moving talking to him about his perspective and seeing it through his lens in so many different ways he had tried. I think after talking to Bob going in and out of organic, he was doing really well with it. And we were down on this really, really remote section of the ranch. And I remember driving down there and we saw this coyote run up the hill and I thought he was gonna like, you know, "oh, coyote!" and leap out of the car. And he was like, oh, there's a coyote cool. And then we drove down and we got out of the car. He just got so philosophical. He was like - you know - because like, I've asked him, Why are you doing this and he, he said, "I know that whoever you know, takes over this place next, I will have done the right thing like I will have taken really good care of this land." And I just learned that people are so complex, and people really do have this connection to the earth. And it shows up differently. And I think it's really important that when you talk about these different techniques, it's not like we're putting it on someone and they have to do it and like this is why it means people need to come to it on their own terms. And it also needs to be something that pencils, and people have their own reasons for doing it. I did hear from a lot that like it's more fun. And that it's a lot more management. It's a lot more work.
Torgerson: Yeah, I've been listening to the audiobook of "Dirt to Soil" by Gabe Brown. And he talks about his son and kind of his interest in regenerative ag and how he went to a conference and they asked like how many people have either children or nieces or nephews that are taking over the farm. And only like two of 200 or something people raise their hand. And so I think it seems that regenerative ag could be a solution to people leaving rural America if it's more fun and it's also like fostering other opportunities for the community like like Big Sandy, like you're really profiled like these bakeries popping up and and different things and so it's really helpful to hear about regenerative ag and considering rural youth. I'm wondering when you I think it was Myllymaki family you took a photograph of the dad filling up a trough and there's like his daughter and her friend and like a border collie puppy in the scene. Did you have the opportunity to talk to the Myllymaki children? And did you hear from any of the younger kids about their interest in agriculture by chance?
Thompson: Not as much as I would have liked to. I would have loved to have embedded myself for two or three days with with the family. But yeah, I didn't I didn't really get to chat with the children all that much with the Myllymaki children all that much.
Wolfe: We talked to Cameron though. Cameron was really into it. He went out as much as he could with his dad. He said he loved being outside. He's super into hunting. And he was out there driving around the side by side. Like it was this amazing scene that like, they were pulling that fence and PJ was jogging. She's like tiny, and Kurt's like, six, three with these long legs. And she's jogging so she can stay ahead of him. And she's unhooking the fence, and he's pulling the fence posts that he can pull. And then the ones that are frozen, he leaves. And Cameron was driving behind on the side by side with like fencing pliers and he would just twist them and pull it out of the frozen ground. And he was really quiet, you know, but he loved going out. And he went out with his dad as often as he could. And they were out of school on Fridays. He's super into hunting. He has his own business, like making mounts. And he's like 14, and yeah, he just, he and his dad were kind of the same. Like it's another reason to be outside.
Kurt like, runs everywhere. And at one point he was running around the farm yard. Jason has a picture of him running around the farm yard and I was like, "Why are you running?" He's like, "it's way more fun." Those are the only kids we encountered though, because Bob's kids are all grown. Yeah. And then John and Gwen didn't have kids and Korey and Wendy he didn't have kids. But I talked to Gwen and Gwen and while we were there, she was really busy. And I talked to her a lot afterwards. And she was a large reason that they switched over to organic. She was from Big Sandy originally, and she had lived elsewhere. She was a chef, and married John and moved back right after John's dad had died. And the farm was like buried in debt. And he wanted to do it. But it was so scary. And he still owned it with his mom. And she kind of gave him she was like, "he would come home covered in Roundup." And he was describing this and it didn't make it into the story but like he was describing, being exhausted and falling into bed asleep, and his sheets smelling like Roundup, and just like not wanting to live like that. And she was like, if if we do decide to have a family, how do we want to raise them? For her it seemed really important. And I think she gave him a lot of the - she gave him the support he needed to be willing to take the leap.
Torgerson: On the other side of the generational spectrum, did you ever encounter anyone who like experienced the Dust Bowl and could compare or draw similarities between the dirty 30s and today?
Wolfe: No, but the people in Judith Basin - almost everyone I talked to talked about blowing dirt and how much more wind there is now. Bruce, Kurt's dad was saying there's way more wind now and way less snow cover in the winter. And PJ there she was talking about when they first switched over. So they did that cover cropping experiment, and then just switched the entire operation over like he did that they thought it was really cool. Then he went to arranging the ranching for profit school in Billings. And during it, somebody introduced him to Gabe Brown, and he started watching Gabe Brown videos. And he was like, this is he came back to his dad, and he was like, "This is how I want to farm." And Bruce, he loves it. He likes being out with you know, his granddaughter moving fence. He sees that it works. He wanted to give Kurt the leeway to farm how he wanted to farm but he still did express like, you know, it's really different. Like I see that the residue is holding more water, but like, "Is this really the best way to do it?" You know, he had farmed the other way for a lot of his life. I think that's a big, big, big dynamic of whether the is typically the son of the father. And whether the father is willing to switch it over yet or not.
Oh, yeah. You also asked about, you know, if people came from the outside, and that was something that PJ, Kurt's wife, specifically expressed, which was, hey, I grew up in this rural community outside of Stanford, but I didn't grow up in a farming family or on a farm. And so I didn't have any preconceived notions about how we've always done it. And so I was open to it. She's now on the Conservation District board and she's really encouraging her neighbors and their community to do it this way because specifically of the billowing dust and not wanting to have, you know, another Dust Bowl situation and and she said that part of it was because of coming from a different background.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah, it's so hard because it's really hard to get into agriculture if you didn't grow up in it. Like there's astronomical costs associated and whole skill sets that you have to learn. So it's really like PJ's situation, and her husband is like the perfect fit.
Wolfe: I mean, something that we heard several times was that a lot of people will try it, you know, on like, a back 40 or back five. Like I'll just try something different back here where nobody can see it and see what happens. And that's happening. I mean, it just doesn't seem like it's not like organic, where you have to just flip a switch and do this huge investment and change your all your - I mean, you do need a lot of new equipment, but like you're changing your entire operation. And all of your sales funnels and everything - this is, people can switch. It is a system, you do want to have all of the principles in place, but you can do it on a portion of the land, which I guess you can do with organic and people are starting on this, you know that no till is the thing that's been going on for decades. And you can't just no till and be regenerative but people aren't, you know, it's like, there's all these different dominoes that can fall. And so I think that there's a lot of interest, whether you call it regenerative or not. A lot of these are principles that people are interested in and people can sort of dip their toe in. And okay, we'll leave a little more residue. As John said, a lot of it is mindset. It's having it your fields look different. They don't look quite so neat. New, like the biggest thing you have to change is yourself.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you Emily and Jason for your time and perspective! Visit montanafreepress.org/common-ground to read the three part Common Ground series and view a gallery of Jason’s incredible photography. I’ve also linked to the Common Ground series and other resources mentioned during this episode on their episode page at reframingrural.org.
On June 30, Jason, Emily and I will continue our conversation on the potential of regenerative agriculture in rural Montana and what it was like to report on this story, for the last Season Two: Sowing Possibility episode.
I produced and co-edited today’s story on the ancestral lands of the Salish and Kalispell Peoples with recordings captured on Apsáalooke, Nez Perce, Lakota, Blackfeet, Salish, Shoshone and Northern Cheyenne lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music was composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. The lead audio editor for this episode was Rob Upchurch. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana, Humanities Washington and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to find resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!